Young, Black and Nominated: Enough?

With few roles for people of color, a long post-Oscar career isn't guaranteed for Quvenzhané Wallis.

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Making the same case for Quvenzhané Wallis as an actor will prove much more difficult, due to the authenticity implied by her tender age and cultivated by her film’s director.

Shooting on location in an isolated Southern Louisiana fishing community, Beasts of the Southern Wild director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin worked painstakingly to put together a cast of Louisiana-based non-actors, and to shape the film’s narrative in response to the stories and feelings they shared.

Zeitlin told Smithsonian magazine that half of the 20 finalists for the role of Hushpuppy were white girls. Wallis stood out from the crowd, and other casting decisions were made after she was in place. For example, Dwight Henry, a local baker who plays Hushpuppy’s father, Wink, describes how he presented Wallis with boxes of homemade sweets because winning her over was a requirement for him to get the role.

It would be inaccurate to say, then, that Wallis was simply playing herself in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Her performance was part of larger collaborative process in which her distinct personality and abilities played a major role. It is also a reminder that most film performances, particularly those that go on to be Oscar-nominated, are products of collaboration between actors and the directors, writers, cinematographers, costume and make-up designers, fellow actors and many, many others who frame, influence and present their work.

It is so tempting to read Wallis through the lens of authenticity, whether we want to praise the rare realism she brings to her performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild or argue that she does not display an Oscar-worthy mastery of the craft of acting.

Even the most cynical of haters would find it hard not to enjoy Wallis’ adorable performances as herself this awards season, as she appears to be genuinely enjoying her unexpected fame and accolades as much as her interviewers and fans. Whether she is carrying a sequined puppy purse down the red carpet or trading quips on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, the little girl from Houma, La., comes across as another real-life black “American Cinderella.”

Such Hollywood fairy tales make us feel as though we are making progress in the long, hard road toward racial equality. But these fairy tales also obscure the labors of performance and the institutional politics that determine how a film like Beasts of the Southern Wild gets made and seen. They also undermine the idea that the achievements of talented “minorities” like Quvenzhané Wallis are real and justly earned.

Jacqueline Stewart is associate professor at Northwestern University in Radio/Television/Film and African American Studies, and a fellow in the NU Public Voices program through the OpEd Project.

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